A paradigm shift in disaster management: Incorporating a human rights-based approach to disaster risk reduction





disaster risk reduction, human rights, policy, resilience, risk


Understanding disasters as socially constructed events represents a departure from current and historic ways in which disasters are characterized, requiring a focal shift in thinking from forces of nature toward social order. Changing societal reactions to evolving natural occurrences restores disasters within the social order, introducing law as an essential framework in approaching disasters as injustices as opposed to misfortunes. International attention is starting to shift strategies intended to reduce risks to natural or man-made hazards and increasing attention on methods toward minimizing their impact known as disaster risk reduction (DRR). DRR is “a policy aimed at preventing new and reducing existing disaster risk and managing residual risk, all of which contribute to strengthening resilience and therefore to the achievement of sustainable development.” The development of normative frameworks to reinforce disaster governance is a significant component in enhancing disaster management systems. Disaster law is an emerging tool to regulate “governance, ethics, and decisions on the demands of a sustainable, inclusive, and healthy planet.” International legal frameworks heavily influence disaster prevention and preparedness with an increased central focus on implementing International Human Rights Law in DRR practices. Legal structures protecting human rights in DRR initiatives positively obligate states to take proper and necessary actions to prevent harm from future disasters. The application of human rights standards fosters the paradigm shift from evaluation of the hazards impact toward assessments of states’ negligence of risks. Interactions among the natural environment, socio-demographics, and the built environment are strong predictors for disaster losses, thus “the regulatory potential for avoiding disasters and reducing their consequence is obvious.” Preventative action becomes a crucial element if the catalyst of the disaster event is failure to adequately prepare and social vulnerability. Disaster law encompasses participation, damage control, and local habitat management as mandatory conditions of governance, assigning criminal liability to public administrators’ negligence toward disaster planning and/or enforcement. Disaster law produces a “sustainable, reliable, and cost-effective model for addressing disasters,” empowering communities to participate in disaster management efforts, one of the strongest methods of building resilience and reducing risk to disasters.

Author Biographies

Francesca Ficara, MS

Georgetown University, Washington, DC

Monique Wheeler, MS

Adjunct Professor, Emergency and Disaster Management, Georgetown University, Washington, DC


Mooney C, Dennis B: Extreme hurricanes and wildfires made 2017 the most costly US disaster year on record. The Washington Post. 2018.

Wijkman A, Timberlake L: Natural Disasters, Acts of God or Acts of Man. London: International Institute for Environment and Development, 1984.

Sommario E, Venier S: Human rights law and disaster risk reduction. Quest Int Law. 2018; 49: 29-47. Available at http://www.qil-qdi.org/human-rights-law-disaster-risk-reduction/. Accessed January 28, 2019.

Lassa JA, Surjan A, Cabellero-Anthony M, et al.: Measuring political will: An index of commitment to disaster risk reduction. Int J Disaster Risk Reduct. 2019; 34: 64-74. Available at https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S2212420918307751. Accessed January 28, 2019.

Lauta KC: Disaster law [google play]. 2015. Available at https://play.google.com/books/reader?id=50yDBAAAQBAJ&pg=GBS.PA107. Accessed January 28, 2019.

Mileti D: Disasters by Design a Reassessment of Natural Hazards in the United States. Washington, DC: Joseph Henry Press, 1999.

Tierney K: The Social Roots of Risk: Producing Disasters, Promoting Resilience. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2014.

Singh A: Disaster Law: Emerging Thresholds. London: Routledge: Taylor & Francis Group, 2018.

Giustiniani Z, Sommario E, Casolari F, et al.: Routledge Handbook of Human Rights and Disasters. Milton Park: Taylor & Francis, 2018. Available at https://books.google.com/books/about/Routledge_Handbook_of_Human_Rights_and_D.html?id=qGRRDwAAQBAJ&printsec=frontcover&source=kp_read_button#v=onepage&q&f=false. Accessed January 28, 2019.

IFRC & UNDP: The Handbook on Law and Disaster Risk Reduction. 2015. Available at https://www.ifrc.org/Global/Photos/Secretariat/201511/Handbook%20on%20law%20and%20DRR%20LR.pdf. Accessed January 28, 2019.

da Costa K, Pospieszna P: The relationship between human rights and disaster risk reduction revisited: Bringing the legal perspective into the discussion. J Int Humanit Legal Stud. 2015; 6(1): 64-86. DOI: 10.1163/18781527-00601005.

Rawinji F: Claiming the human right to protection from disasters: The case for human rights-based disaster risk reduction. 2013. Available at https://www.preventionweb.net/publications/view/31225. Accessed January 28, 2019.

Bowen AG: Document analysis as a qualitative research method. Qual Res J. 2009; 9(2): 27-40. Available at https://www.researchgate.net/publication/240807798_Document_Analysis_as_a_Qualitative_Research_Method. Accessed January 28, 2019.

Eisner E: The Enlightened Eye: Qualitative Inquiry and the Enhancement of Educational Practice. New York, NY: Toronto, 1991.

Kelly T, Guinan G: The Handbook on Law and Disaster Risk Reduction. Switzerland: IFRC. 2015. Available at https://www.ifrc.org/Global/Photos/Secretariat/201511/Handbook%20on%20law%20and%20DRR%20LR.pdf. Accessed January 28, 2019.

Shreve C, Kelman I: Does mitigation save. Reviewing cost-benefit analyses of disaster risk reduction. Int J Disaster Risk Reduct. 2014; 10: 213-235. DOI: 10.1016/j.ijdrr.2014.08.004.

Aronsson-Storrier M, Da Costa K: Regulating disasters? The role of international law in disaster prevention and management. Disaster Preven Manag. 2017; 26(5): 502-513. DOI: 10.1108/DPM-09-2017-0218.

The Advocates for Human Rights: Human rights and the US: How has the United States handled human rights issues in the past and today? n.d. Available at http://www.theadvocatesforhumanrights.org/human_rights_and_the_united_states. Accessed January 28, 2019.

Clarke L: Worst cases: Terror and catastrophe in the popular imagination. 2011. Available at https://ebookcentral.proquest.com. Accessed January 28, 2019.

Verchick RM: Disaster law and climate change. Climate Change Law. 2016. Available at https://www.researchgate.net/publication/290994602_Disaster_Law_and_Climate_Change_in_Climate_Change_Law_Edward_Elgar_Daniel_A_Farber_Marjan_Peeters_eds_2016. Accessed January 28, 2019.

Singh A: Disaster law: The rubric of international preparedness in disaster risk reduction. Middle East Institute. 2016. Available at https://www.mei.edu/publications/disaster-law-rubric-institutional-preparedness-disaster-risk-reduction. Accessed January 28, 2019.

Farber DA: Navigating the intersection of environmental law and disaster law. Brigham Young Univ Law Rev. 2011; 6: 1783-1820. Available at https://scholarship.law.berkeley.edu/facpubs/2059/. Accessed January 28, 2019.

Picard M: Disaster management, risk reduction and international disaster response laws in the commonwealth. Commonw Law Bull. 2017; 43(3-4): 403-437. DOI: 10.1080/03050718.2017.1439362.

United Nations International Strategy for Disaster Risk Reduction: What is disaster risk reduction? n.d. Available at https://www.unisdr.org/who-we-are/what-is-drr. Accessed January 28, 2019.

Kelman I, Mercer J, Gaillard J: The Routledge Handbook of Disaster Risk Reduction Including Climate Change Adaptation. Abingdon, Oxon: Routledge, 2017.

United Nations Development Programme: The Handbook on Law and Disaster Risk Reduction. 2015. Available at https://reliefweb.int/report/world/handbook-law-and-disaster-risk-reduction. Accessed January 28, 2019.

Bartolini G, Natoli T: Disaster risk reduction: An international law perspective. Quest Int Law. 2018; 48: 1-6. Available at http://www.qil-qdi.org/disaster-risk-reduction-international-lawperspective/.

United Nations: Human rights. n.d. Available at http://www.un.org/en/sections/issues-depth/human-rights/. Accessed January 28, 2019.

Zorzi Giustiniani F, Sommario E, Casolari F, et al.: Routledge Handbook of Human Rights and Disaster. Abingdon, Oxon: Routledge, 2018.

da Costa K, Pospieszna P: Finding the Missing Thread: The Inclusion of a Human Rights-Based Approach in Tackling Climate Change Mitigation, Adaptation, and Disaster Risk Reduction. UNISDR. 2014. Available at https://www.unisdr.org/we/inform/publications/49949. Accessed January 28, 2019.

Boesen JK, Martin T: Applying a human rights-based approach: An inspirational guide for civil society. The Danish Institute for Human Rights. 2007. Available at https://www.humanrights.dk/publications/applying-rights-based-approach. Accessed January 28, 2019.

United Nations International Children’s Emergency Fund: The state of the world’s children 2004. 2003. Available at https://www.unicef.org/sowc04/files/SOWC_O4_eng.pdf. Accessed January 28, 2019.

Zack N: Ethics for Disaster. Lanham, MD: The Roman & Littlefield Publishing Group, Inc., 2009.

Political Will [Def]: Oxford dictionaries online. n.d. Available at https://en.oxforddictionaries.com/definition/political_will. Accessed January 28, 2019.

Rubin CB: Emergency Management: The American Experience 1900-2010. Boca Raton, FL: Taylor & Francis Group, 2012.

O’Donovan K: Bureaucratic policymaking on natural hazards. Oxford Research Encyclopedias. 2013. Available at http://oxfordre.com/naturalhazardscience/abstract/10.1093/acrefore/9780199389407.001.0001/acrefore-9780199389407-e-205. Accessed January 28, 2019.

Ignatieff M: American Exceptionalism and Human Rights. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2005.

Bradley M: More than misfortune: Recognizing natural disasters as a concern for transitional justice. Int J Trans Just. 2017; 11(3): 400-420. DOI: 10.1093/ijtj/ijx024.

Farber DA: Disaster law and inequality. Law Inequality. 2007; 25: 297-539.

Alston P: Statement on visit to the USA, by professor Philip Alston. United Nations special rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights. 2017. Available at https://www.ohchr.org/EN/NewsEvents/Pages/DisplayNews.aspx? Accessed January 28, 2019.

Herwig A: Law and the Management of Disasters: The Challenge of Resilience. London: Routledge, 2016: 1-279. DOI: 10.4324/9781315639321.

Kälin W, Dale CH: Disaster risk mitigation—Why human rights matter. Forced Migr Rev. 2008; 31: 38-39. Available at https://doaj.org/article/2ae03052aef1485890af5de80398915d. Accessed January 28, 2019.

Samuel K, Aronsson-Storrier M, Bookmiller K: The Cambridge Handbook of Disaster Risk Reduction and International Law. Cambridge, United Kingdom: Cambridge University Press, 2019.

Gaillard J, Kelman I, Wisner B: The Routledge Handbook of Hazards and Disaster Risk Reduction. Abingdon, Oxon: Routledge, 2012.

Simon GL: Don’t blame California wildfires on a ‘perfect storm’ of weather events. The Conversation. October 25, 2017. Available at https://theconversation.com/dont-blame-california-wildfires-on-aperfect-storm-of-weather-events-86128. Accessed January 28, 2019.

California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection: California statewide fire summary. 2017. Available at http://calfire.ca.gov/communications/communications_StatewideFireSummary. Accessed January 28, 2019.

Kasler D: Wine country wildfire costs now top $9 billion, costliest in California history. The Sacramento Bee. December 6, 2017. Available at http://www.sacbee.com/news/state/california/fires/article188377854.html. Accessed January 28, 2019.

Mulkern AC: Deadlier wildfires spurred by warming and new homes. E&E News. November 29, 2017. Available at https://www.eenews.net/stories/1060067499. Accessed January 28, 2019.

Brenkert-Smith H, Dickinson KL, Champ PA, et al.: Social amplification of wildfire risk: The role of social interactions and information sources. Risk Anal. 2013; 33(5): 800-817. Available at https://onlinelibrary-wiley-com.proxy.library.georgetown.edu/doi/abs/10.1111/j.1539-6924.2012.01917.x. Accessed January 28, 2019.

Johnson R, Colson N: What fueled the inferno? Socialist Worker. October 20, 2017. Available at https://socialistworker.org/2017/10/20/what-fueled-the-inferno. Accessed January 28, 2019.

Gafani M: Wine country fires: Gov. Brown Vetoed 2016 bill aimed at power line, wildfire safety. The Mercury News. October 11, 2017. Available at https://www.mercurynews.com/2017/10/11/wine-country-fires-gov-brown-vetoed-2016-bill-aimed-at-power-line-wildfire-safety/. Accessed January 28, 2019.

Crabtree S: California gov. Brown’s veto of wildfire bill faces scrutiny. The Washington Free Beacon. November 19, 2018. Available at https://freebeacon.com/issues/california-gov-browns-veto-wildfirebill-faces-scrutiny/. Accessed January 28, 2019.

California Governor’s Office of Emergency Services: Public alert and warning system for Sonoma county. 2018. Available at http://code.pressdemocrat.com/pdf/Sonoma%20Assessment%20with%20Cover%20Letter.022618%5B3%5D.pdf. Accessed January 28, 2019.

St. John P: Alarming failures left many in the path of California vulnerable and without warning. The Los Angeles Times. December 29, 2017. Available at http://www.latimes.com/local/lanow/la-mefire-warnings-failure-20171229-story.html. Accessed January 28, 2019.

Palomino J: Sonoma county warnings fell short in wine country fires, state report says. San Francisco Chronicle. 2018. Available at https://www.sfchronicle.com/news/article/Sonoma-County-emergency-readiness-warnings-fell-12709628.php. Accessed January 28, 2019.

Renda M: Report: Sonoma county was ill prepared to handle wildfire. Courthouse News. February 27, 2018. Available at https://www.courthousenews.com/report-sonoma-county-was-ill-preparedto-handle-wildfire/. Accessed January 28, 2019.

Florida R, Rose JFP: Houston’s big opportunity for better urban development. CityLab. 2017. Available at https://www.citylab.com/equity/2017/09/houston-will-certainly-rebuild-heres-how-itshould/539097/. Accessed January 28, 2019.

Stephenson W: Houston’s human catastrophe started long before the storm. The Nation. August 29, 2017. Available at https://www.thenation.com/article/houstons-human-catastrophe-started-long-before-the-storm/. Accessed January 28, 2019.

Revkin A: Development and disasters—A deadly combination well beyond Houston. ProPublica. 2017. Available at https://www.propublica.org/article/development-and-disasters-a-deadly-combination-well-beyond-houston. Accessed January 28, 2019.

Satija N, Collier K, Shaw A: Everyone knew Houston’s reservoirs would flood—Except for the people who bought the homes inside them. ProPublica. October 12, 2017. Available at https://projects.propublica.org/graphics/harvey-reservoirs. Accessed January 28, 2019.

Olsen L: For buyers within ‘flood pools,’ no warnings from developers or public officials. The Houston Chronicle. 2018. Available at https://www.houstonchronicle.com/news/houston-texas/houston/article/For-buyers-within-flood-pools-no-warnings-12434078.php. Accessed January 28, 2019.

Kelly C, Costa K, Edelman S: Safe, strong, and just rebuilding after hurricanes Harvey, Irma, and Maria. Center for American Progress. 2017. Available at https://www.americanprogress.org/issues/green/reports/2017/10/03/440134/safe-strong-just-rebuilding-hurricanes-harvey-irma-maria/. Accessed January 28, 2019.

Bajak F, Olsen L: Silent spills: In Houston and beyond. Harvey’s spills leave toxic legacy. Houston Chronical. March 22, 2018. Available at https://www.houstonchronicle.com/news/houston-texas/houston/article/In-Houston-and-beyond-Harvey-s-spills-leave-a-12771237.php. Accessed January 28, 2019.

Nifosi-Sutton I: Ineffectual disaster management in Puerto Rico: How the human rights-based approach would have made a difference. Human Rights Brief. July 30, 2018. Available at http://hrbrief.org/2018/07/ineffectual-disaster-management-in-puertorico-how-the-human-rights-based-approach-would-have-made-adifference/. Accessed January 28, 2019.

Acevedo N: Puerto Rico lacked disaster planning, communications strategy, hurricane study found. NBS News. 2018. Available at https://www.nbcnews.com/storyline/puerto-rico-crisis/puertorico-lacked-disaster-planning-communications-strategy-hurricanestudy-found-n904866. Accessed January 28, 2019.

Negrón-Muntaner F: Puerto Rico was undergoing a humanitarian crisis long before hurricane maria. Pacific Standard. September 29, 2017. Available at https://psmag.com/social-justice/puerto-ricowas-undergoing-a-humanitarian-crisis-long-before-hurricanemaria. Accessed January 28, 2019.

Blakeman B: Puerto Rico was a disaster long before Maria ravaged the island. The Hill. 2017. Available at https://thehill.com/opinion/energy-environment/353506-puerto-rico-was-a-disasterlong-before-maria-ravaged-the-island. Accessed January 28, 2019.

Grego C: Hurricanes, historians, and environmental injustice: De-naturalizing “natural” disaster [blog post]. September 6, 2017. Available at https://erstwhileblog.com/2017/09/06/hurricanes-andhistorians/#_ftnref2. Accessed January 28, 2019.

Verchick R: Disaster justice: The geography of human capability (new symposium on disaster law). Duke Environ Law Policy Forum. 2012; 23(1): 23.

Wells T: There is no such thing as a natural disaster anymore: Why willful ignorance is not innocence. ABC. October 3, 2017. Available at https://www.abc.net.au/religion/there-is-no-such-thingas-a-natural-disaster-anymore-why-wilful-/10095340. Accessed January 28, 2019.

Nguyen N: The perfect storm: Politics of disaster management. Berkeley Political Review. January 4, 2019. Available at https://bpr.berkeley.edu/2019/01/04/the-perfect-storm-politics-of-disaster-management/. Accessed January 28, 2019.

da Costa K: Can the observance of human rights of individuals enhance their resilience to cope with natural disasters? Procedia Econ Finan. 2014; 18: 62-70. DOI: 10.1016/s2212-5671(14)00914-9.

Amaratunga D, Haigh R, Hettige S: The Role of Accountability within Disaster Risk Governance. New Zealand: Massey University/University of Auckland. 2016. Available at https://www.researchgate.net/publication/309396214_THE_ROLE_OF_ACCOUNTABILITY_WITHIN_DISASTER_RISK_GOVERNANCE. Accessed January 28, 2019.

Olson RS, Sarmiento JP, Hoberman G: Establishing public accountability, speaking truth to power, and inducing political will for disaster risk reduction: ‘ochos rios + 25’. Environ Hazards. 2011; 10: 59-68. Available at https://www.researchgate.net/publication/233478817_Establishing_public_accountability_speaking_truth_to_power_and_inducing_political_will_for_disaster_risk_reduction_‘Ocho_Rios_25’/citations. Accessed January 28, 2019.

Raju E, Da Costa K: Governance in the Sendai: A way ahead? Disaster Preven Manag. 2018; 27(3): 278-291. DOI: 10.1108/DPM-08-2017-0190.

Villegas C, Wowk K, Shelton K, et al.: Rethinking disaster recovery and mitigation funding in the wake of Hurricane Harvey. 2018. Available at https://kinder.rice.edu/sites/g/files/bxs1676/f/documents/KI%202018%20Research%20Report-Disaster%20Funding%203_0.pdf. Accessed January 28, 2019.

Hertel S, Libal K: Human Rights in the United States: Beyond Exceptionalism. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2011.

Lauta KC: Human rights and natural disasters. In Research Handbook on Disasters and International Law. United Kingdom: Edward Elgar Publishing, 2016. Available at https://www.academia.edu/36769578/Human_Rights_and_Natural_Disasters. Accessed January 28, 2019.



How to Cite

Ficara, F., and M. Wheeler. “A Paradigm Shift in Disaster Management: Incorporating a Human Rights-Based Approach to Disaster Risk Reduction”. Journal of Emergency Management, vol. 21, no. 6, Dec. 2023, pp. 557-76, doi:10.5055/jem.0748.